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Friday, December 8, 2023
Dec. 8, 2023

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AG sues two Vancouver companies over robocalls, advertising tactics

Lawsuit alleges deceptive ads, unfair sales practices, more than 13 million robocalls

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter

The state Attorney General’s Office announced Tuesday that it has filed a lawsuit against two Vancouver air-duct cleaning companies, accusing them of making more than 13 million robocalls and using deceptive advertising tactics.

Filed in King County Superior Court, the lawsuit lists US Air Ducts & Sky Builders Inc. and DLM Services, along with owner Rami Mornel and general manager David Moshe, as defendants.

Moshe called the lawsuit “kind of weird” and said an attorney is evaluating the company’s options.

The lawsuit alleges that the companies engaged in deceptive advertising and unfair sales practices in violation of the state Consumer Protection Act and the Washington Automatic Dialing and Announcing Device Statutes. The office also filed a temporary restraining order, which was granted, blocking the companies from applying the alleged tactics, including robocalls.

“Robocalls are more than just annoying, they can also be illegal,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a news release. “These companies used illegal robocalls to bombard Washingtonians with deceptive marketing. My office will continue to be a watchdog to protect Washingtonians from illegal robocalls and deceptive marketing.”

The lawsuit alleges that over at least two years, the companies made thousands of robocalls per day to more than 1 million people, including more than 100 directed toward 500 Washington residents, and “spoofed” their caller IDs to mislead them about who was calling. The lawsuit also claims that the companies sent tens of millions of deceptive mailed advertisements that promoted “limited time offers” at reduced pricing, misled consumers of a “VIP membership” that had little or no value — and claims that DLM Services created fake Google reviews.

Many of the residents complained that they were part of the national Do Not Call registry, according to the lawsuit. The companies also never used their names on the caller IDs, instead using names such as “Seattle Duct Cleaning” to appear to be located in the receiver’s area, the lawsuit claims.

Mailers offered a coupon for a supposedly reduced price of $29 to $55 without listing limits or exclusions such as the heating and cooling system’s size, condition or location, as well as a “special” limited-time deal with no expiration date, according to the lawsuit. Coupons also falsely claimed that the regular price for the same service was between $150 and $225, the attorney general’s office said.

For individuals who responded to the calls and mailers, technicians, who were instructed to attempt to upsell expensive additional services, would visit their home for a consultation and cleaning, according to the lawsuit. Though the companies never set a fixed price, technicians were given a preferred range prior to visits, the lawsuit claims.

Additionally, the memberships were promoted as guaranteeing a number of annual services, including air duct cleaning, even though it only meant that technicians would provide yearly visual inspections at the consumer’s request, the attorney general’s office said. The lawsuit asserts that residents who cancelled their memberships would often not receive a refund for any remaining years of the agreement.

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The Attorney General’s office said that it received dozens of complaints and that nearly 120 grievances were filed with the Federal Trade Commission. One included an 82-year-old widowed woman who purchased a $1,200 membership, and another involved a man — originally contacting the company to clean his dead mother’s home — who paid $2,318 for the membership but was charged an additional $1,380 when he asked to transfer the membership and have the air ducts in his home cleaned, the office said.

The office said that it will seek up to $2,000 in damages for each violation along with other costs, fees and relief. The restitution amount for Washington residents has not been determined.

‘Family-owned company’

Moshe said that the state had been in contact with the company as part of a civil investigation. He said the company cooperated fully and heard about the lawsuit on Monday.

“That was kind of weird, but we’ll do our best and figure it out as we go along,” Moshe said.

Moshe said the company provides cleaning services on a daily basis and only used the robocalls for a brief time.

“Ninety percent of it looks kind of, pretty crazy to us,” Moshe said. “We’re pretty confident that the scope of what the state is talking about is the difference between heaven and Earth.”

A lawyer is reviewing the lawsuit to determine the company’s legal options.

“Companies, as they grow, can make mistakes along the way,” Moshe said. “We’re a small, family-owned company. We’re not some huge corporation.”

US Air Ducts & Sky Builders Inc., listed as a Washington corporation, is currently inactive after failing, for the second time since 2017, to file an annual report to the state, according to Secretary of State’s Office records. Mornel is listed as a registrant with DLM Services, which was incorporated in January.

Assistant Attorneys General Mina Shahin and Kate Barach of the office’s Consumer Protection Division are handling the case.

Responding to robocalls

Those who receive potential scam calls are advised to immediately hang up, report it to the Attorney General’s Office or call toll-free 800-551-4636. Reports may also be sent to the Federal Trade Commission.

Some phone service providers also offer call blocking or labeling services.

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